A bath with a view …
Speak of Scottish islands and many come to mind: Skye, Mull, Orkney … and more. But some of the smaller islands provide brilliant opportunities to escape for a long weekend or short break. We took the CalMac boat from Oban to discover one.
Only 8 miles long by 3 miles wide – Colonsay is a wee gem in the Inner Hebrides. There’s a single track road – with off-shoots – that runs around it servicing the homes of those who live here (just 124 people at the last count) together with those who make this stunning place their holiday destination …
The port at Oban services ferries to many of the inner and outer Hebrides. There’s a buzz of expectation and, if you arrive to check in early enough, there’s also time to visit The Green Shack (aka the Oban Seafood Hut). It is on the harbour side side and only a few minutes from the ferry parking. The shack sells fresh fish & seafood to take away. It is well worth a visit.
There’s nothing quite like a ferry trip to get you in holiday mode. You have to slow down. You’re not in charge. On board – a two and a half hour trip ahead to cover just over 40 miles at sea – we explored the boat, found the dog-friendly lounge (with dog owner-friendly seats) and then chilled out. Reading, time on deck to watch the mainland and Mull slip by, and visits to the Mariner’s Cafeteria to enjoy Barra-landed cod in a crispy batter, served with chips and peas.
We left Oban in a downpour, but as Colonsay came into view, the rain stopped, the clouds started to clear and we watched from the deck as we approached the island’s tiny harbour.
Disembarking, each arrival was handed a Colonsay welcome pack – a very neat idea created by a marketing group that is helping to promote the island and the shoulder seasons.
The pack included a map, a very useful ‘Colonsay Times’ (detailing all the relevant opening times for the small but growing number of businesses on the island), together with materials marketing upcoming events:
- September (12th – 17th) the island hosts Ceol Cholasa – the 10th Colonsay Folk Festival.
- October (14th – 28th) is the island’s Autumn Festival including walks, workshops and activities for adults and children.
- Next Spring, from the 30th April until the 20th May, the Festival of Spring will see bird watching and nature walks, foraging and wild cookery sessions, bread & baking courses, art & painting classes, wool & fabric workshops as well as farm visits, expeditions and art & craft activities.
A driver behind the island’s changing fortunes is Alexander Howard (below right) …
Alexander is the eldest son of the island’s owner and lives with his family in Colonsay House (above left). The house and estate has been in the ownership of the Strathcona family for more than a century. Today, they work closely with Scottish Natural Heritage, the RSPB and the Forestry Commission with the principle aim of preserving natural habitats for birds, mammals and wildflowers.
Their business – Colonsay Holidays – is very much family run with a number of family members involved in day to day operations. They manage many of the old estate’s properties – including the island’s only hotel – in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way wherever possible. An ongoing programme of restoration and improvement has seen visitor numbers grow in recent years helping Colonsay to buck trends. The improved tourism numbers have seen knock-on effects that have benefited smaller businesses on the island.
A decade ago, The Colonsay Brewery opened: Colonsay is the smallest island in the world with its own brewery. In 2016, they launched Wild Island Botanic Gin – distilled with hand gathered wild botanicals from the island. Their products are on sale at the brewery, at the island’s village store – and at Hotel.
There’s a small bookshop specialising in books on Colonsay – and it is a publishing company in its own right. The House of Lochar publishes books specialising in Scottish history. There’s The Colonsay Pantry where they bake bread to order – and are open 7 days a week for breakfast, coffee, lunch and dinner. The Pantry also provides free Wi-Fi – one of the island’s rarest commodities! There is also a Post Office with the village store. Opposite – a fuel pump (not that you’ll be clocking up the miles) and, by the ferry terminal, a charge point for those with electric cars. Change indeed! Perhaps the most significant impact of the island’s improved tourism offer is the impact on the island’s sustainable future: Colonsay’s resident population has increased at a faster rate than almost any other Scottish island over the last two censuses.
Where to stay …
If you’re looking to stay on the island, there’s a suprising variety of options: from the The Backpackers’ Lodge to cottages, from houses to apartments in Colonsay House itself. The House dates from 1722. They have a Garden and Cafe that are open on two days each week – Wednesdays (12.30pm-5pm with lunch and afternoon teas available) and Friday (2.30pm-5pm with afternoon teas available).
The Colonsay Hotel is a social hub for the island. There’s a bar, restaurant – and wonderful terrace where you can enjoy morning coffees or later afternoon sun downers …
The hotel hosts a wide range of events and activities – from Kids’ DVD nights (Tuesdays from 6pm) to Quiz Nights (Thursday from 9pm). On selected nights of the week, they serve pre-ferry suppers at 5pm – and they also provide a pre ceilidh supper from 6.30pm on a Saturday … with the ceilidh in the village hall (summer & holidays only).
We spent a night at The Backpackers’ Lodge – a Victorian former gamekeeper’s house. It sleeps a maximum of 16 in two separate buildings. Compared with some ‘bunkhouses’, it was quite basic, but comfortable and we had all we needed. The ‘free Wi-Fi’ didn’t work, but that seemed a near constant across the island! As with all bunkhouses, it was fun to meet other folk who were exploring – visitors from close to home and from the other side of the world. Some walking. Some cycling. It is a peaceful spot – with easy walks from the property beyond Colonsay House towards the island’s north coast.
We headed out to Kiloran Bay – a stunning stretch of golden sands looking out towards Mull and Iona: what a beach! There were more coos than people. A great beach where a small peaty river cuts through the sands and rocks, and millennia of ebb and flow has formed tidal plunge pools where the brave can dip!
The next leg of our long weekend took us to join friends who were holidaying in Garvard – an old farmhouse on the south side of the island located at the end of a half-mile-long, gated rough track. The dog friendly accommodation is in an exceptional location with uninterrupted views over the tidal Strand to Oronsay – the paps of Jura peaking over the landscape in the distance.
The house sleeps 10: on the ground floor there are two twin bedrooms (one with bunks) and a bathroom with a shower. Upstairs, one double bedroom, two twin bedrooms and a bathroom. There’s a dishwasher, washing machine and clothes dryer – and full electric central heating with night storage heaters. The hidden TV made us smile!
A large kitchen-diner was our hub – enjoying home made meals with fresh lobster and crab. It was also a picnic production line – prepping sandwiches and more for days out on the beach. Outside, there’s a large, dry-stone walled garden where we enjoyed produce from the Brewery – midge free thanks to the sea breeze. The property’s undeniable USP is the bath. The view south (this Blog’s featured image) whilst you soak away the day’s sun-kissed salt is wonderful.
Below: the view from Garvard’s twin room …
We’d planned to walk to the tiny island of Oronsay – and checked the tide times at the Post Office (as recommended). The postmaster told me: “I wouldn’t go if I were you … but then I’m not you!” The date was listed as ‘NG’ … a ‘no go’ due to the neap tides. These are where there’s the least difference between high and low water. We bailed – not least of all as it would have meant a full 12 hours on Oronsay with no shade on what turned out to be a summer scorcher. We had wall to wall sunshine – and headed to the west facing beach at Eilean Dubh near the island’s golf course.
The beach is stunning: shallow waters that provide a beautiful and safe environment for all manner of beach activities – from swimming and snorkeling to paddle boarding and kayaking (for those who have brought their own equipment). Wading across the shallow bay to a deserted beach, swimming and sandcastle building were our activities of choice. It is a heaven and haven for geologists and botanists alike … not just in this corner of the island but throughout Colonsay. Outstanding flora and fauna abound – and there’s evidence to show that man inhabited Colonsay up to 7,000 years BC. Ancient standing stones and ruined hill forts are all to be explored – together with raised beaches and unique geological features.
The island is packed full of history, heritage and outstanding natural beauty – yet the prevailing winds and seas ensure Colonsay changes every day. Those who visit today and tomorrow will make their own history and memories. We’ll be back. In a word: unforgettable.
Did you know?
You can fly to Colonsay: in 2006, the former grass airstrip was upgraded and provided with a hard surface in readiness for the introduction of a scheduled air service. You can fly from Oban and Islay using Hebridean Air Services.
The Colonsay Golf Course is more than 200 years old. It measures 4,752 yards and comprises four par 5s, eight par 4s and six par 3s. Green fees? A day ticket is just £5. You can pay at the Hotel, in the General Store or at the Honesty Box by the first tee.
There’s no rugby club on the island: in fact, there’s no rugby pitch. So it may be a surprise to hear that Colonsay hosts a rugby festival – the smallest island in the world to do so! Around a dozen men and women’s teams gather on the last weekend in July … to play on the beach!
And finally …
Colonsay is a beautifully remote place. Visitors are reminded to drive slowly at all times. The roads are narrow – and are enjoyed by those walking and cycling, including young children. Similarly, the island is a paradise for animals both reared and wild. Dogs must be kept under close control at all times for their own safety and for the protection of the island’s wildlife and livestock.
For more on the island …
Discover more places to stay, events, activities as well as local arts, crafts and produce (including the most delicious honey), visit Colonsay.org.
Thanks for reading.